One Bite at a Time




Friday, August 21, 2009

The Catfather

(With apologies to Mario Puzo)


The old miller had not had much of a business, so when he died there was not much to divide among his three sons. The oldest got the mill itself, as was his birthright. The second son inherited the family donkey, as it was the only other thing the old man possessed of notable value. That left the youngest of the three with only the cat from the old man’s estate.

A few days later, after the funeral and disposition of the assets, the youngest son was sitting alone in his room with the cat. The cat was idly licking the back of one paw while the young man watched him with growing discomfort.

“What am I to do?” asked the young man of no one in particular. “I am not displeased with my lot, as my father had not much to give, but what shall I do with a cat as an inheritance? After I have eaten your meat and made a muff of your fur, what benefit will I be able to gain?”

The cat looked at the boy with his slit-like amber eyes and stopped licking its paw. It scratched the back of one paw under its jaw with a brief flicking motion, almost contemplative in an off-handed way.

“What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” asked the cat as it finished scratching. He spoke in a voice that, although having an edge, was as transparent as olive oil.

The miller’s youngest son was speechless, not so much because he had been spoken to by a cat as by what the cat had said. He watched the feline idly play with a small ball of string as it continued.

“Have you ever invited me to sit at your table like you would any other friend?” the cat said. “I have eaten your table scraps for many years now, but have you treated me as a friend? I see things, I understand. You had no need of a friend like me. That is fine. You had your human friends.”

“I didn’t want people to talk,” stammered the boy. “I didn’t know what they would say.”

The cat made a dismissive gesture with its paw. “That was your decision. I don’t begrudge you making your own choices about your friends. Let me tell you something, though.” The cat stopped playing with the string and looked directly at the boy. The vertical slits of its eyes narrowed with the intensity of the point it was about to make. “If you had been my friend, you would not now be in this situation. You would have everything you deserve, and other men would respect you, even fear you. You would not be thinking of eating me and making a muff of my remains.”

“I am sorry,” the boy said, abashed. “What can I do to make amends?”

The cat looked at him quietly, with an expression that said the boy already knew all he needed to know. Understanding the meaning of the cat’s silence, the boy did what was necessary.

“Be my friend,” he said quietly, “Catfather.”

The cat immediately got up and rubbed its back against the boy’s leg. “That’s good,” it purred. “Everything will be fine. You must do as I tell you to do now. Stay here in your home until I come for you. When I come, do as I say. Soon you will be a man of respect. I will take care of everything. All you need to do is to give me a sack, and some boots for my feet.”

“That I can do, but how will you do what you say?” asked the disbelieving boy.

“Your neighbors will be happy to give to you what should be yours,” replied the cat.

“My neighbors? They had little use for me when they needed my father to mill their grain. They will have no need of me at all now. How will you get them to do as you say?”

The cat looked at the boy. Without smiling, his face took on a placid character that spoke volumes. “I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

“I have no doubt that you can and will do all that you say,” said the boy. “I have no means of my own. How will I ever repay you?”

The cat looked at him benignly and scratched at its mouth again before speaking. “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call on you to do me a service. Until then, consider this a gift on the day of your inheritance.”

The next day the cat went to the palace of the king. In the sack the boy had given to him he carried three fine game fowl he had caught along the way. When he met the king, he presented him with the fowl as gifts from his master, Don Catleone. He continued this for several days, each day bearing more exotic game birds until the king requested to meet the great Don Catleone in person.

“Soon,” the cat said without coyness. “My master will come to you in good time.”

Later that week the cat learned that the king would be riding with his daughter in the royal carriage. The princess was renowned throughout the land for her beauty and grace and young noblemen from all corners of the realm had come forward to pledge their troth.

The cat instructed the boy to bathe in the river near the castle at the time the royal party would be passing by. He didn’t tell his young master of the schedule, or of his plan. There was no need to, and there is never any need to tell anyone else what you are thinking if there is no need for them to know.

The cat hid in the bushes near his master’s swimming place until the royal party was near. He carefully crept down to the bank and removed the youth’s humble clothes and hid them under a rock where they would not be seen. The cat then ran for the road, shouting at the top of his lungs that his master, Don Catleone, was drowning.

When the king heard that the drowning man was the same Don Catleone who had paid him so many courtesies of late he ordered his guards to save him immediately. The cat led them to the proper place in the river, where the lad did make an effort to thrash about to help to sell the cat’s story. When the guards dragged him out of the river at last, his clothing was nowhere to be found. The cat told the guards that as he was running in response to his master’s cries of dismay, he saw two men running away with the clothes. He did not go after them, as his master’s safety was his primary concern.

When the king heard of this, he instructed a fast rider to be dispatched to the castle to obtain suitable garments for his honored guest, the great Don Catleone. While the youth and his cat waited in the bushes for the clothes to be brought, the cat instructed the young man in what was to be done. Nodding silently, the youth assented to the cat’s plan. His trust has been well placed to this point and he saw no need to do other.

The clothes finally arrived and the lad was dressed. Attired in finery designed for the king, he looked every bit the young nobleman the king and the princess had expected. The king immediately requested that Don Catleone join him and his daughter for the rest of their ride. The youth looked toward his cat for advice. The cat only nodded and said softly, “You go with them. I have some work to do first. I will come to you later, when the time is right.”

As his master climbed into the royal coach, the cat took a shortcut through the forest until he came to two farmers working in a field. They were both large men, with skin and hands that bespoke of years of toil in the sun and on the land.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the cat said conversationally as he approached.

The two men paused in their labors to see what else a cat might have to say to them.

“Good afternoon, yourself,” said the larger of the two. His voice and attitude were of a man who would have little patience for any tomfoolery from a cat. “I see that you have time on your hands to roam the countryside and disturb good men in their work. What would you have so you can be off with yourself?”

The cat took no offense at the man’s rudeness. It was of no consequence and only served to display the man’s obvious ignorance of the situation in which he found himself.

“As you are clearly a busy man, I will get right to my business. I have no wish to waste your time.” The cat paused and pointed up the road back toward the palace. “In less than an hour’s time the royal coach will approach. The king will ask you whom this land belongs to. You will tell him that it belongs to my master, Don Catleone.”

“I will do no such thing!” said the farmer scornfully. “This is the land of the ogre who lives in yon castle. I’ll not attribute it to any other, as I have no desire to feel the wrath of the ogre. Now be gone with you before I call the dogs!”

The cat did not move. Instead, he weathered the farmer’s tirade with patience and sympathy. When the man had finished, he spoke quietly, much as he had to his master before.

“I take no offense. I understand that you speak from your heart and not from your head because you do not understand why I am here. I come here today to take nothing from you. I come here to ask you a small favor, a favor for which I will remain in your debt. You may find it better to have me in your debt than the other way around.”

“Is that a threat?” said the farmer as he began to approach the cat.

“I have made no threats to you today. Your friend can vouch for that,” the cat said, indicating the other farmer as he did so. That man had remained on the periphery of the conversation, uncertain as to where it would take him. “Life takes many turns. This one has brought us all to a point where we may be able to do each other a service.” He dropped his bag to the ground and gestured toward it with his head. “Take a look in the bag.”

The angry farmer opened the bag and looked quizzically into it. Finally he withdrew an old oaken bucket with a pair of farmer’s work overalls neatly folded inside.

“What’s this, a joke?” he fumed. “Why are Farmer Brown’s overalls in the old well bucket?”

The cat continued to look at him placidly. The other farmer’s reaction was much different. The color drained from his face as water runs through a sieve. He took a step backward from the cat and said to his friend in a small, airless voice, “Do what he says and do it now!”

“What’s wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?” the angry farmer demanded. “What’s the meaning of this?”

The cat said nothing, merely looked to the frightened farmer and smiled in his feline way. It was the farmer who spoke to his friend of the implications of what they had been shown.

“It’s an old cat custom. It means that Farmer Brown sleeps at the bottom of the well tonight.”

The angry farmer looked at his friend in shock, then turned his attention to the cat.

“That’s a nice big well,” the cat said in his smoothest and quietest voice. “Lots of room down there.”

After having reached an agreement with the farmers and receiving their assurances that they would pass the word to their neighbors in turn, the cat turned to the most important task of the day. Continuing down the path, he soon found himself in front of the castle of the great ogre. This ogre ruled the surrounding area with an iron hand and a flair for imaginative punishment. The cat requested entry.

The ogre was preparing for a great feast, which was being laid on as the cat rang for admittance. His festivities at hand, the ogre was in an expansive mood and welcomed a visit from the Catfather, as he had heard of him.

Since the great hall was being decorated for the feast, the ogre took the Catfather to a smaller, more private room. There they shared a drink and spoke of their respective interests. Finally it was time for the cat to take care of his business.

“I have heard from many respected sources that you have powers,” he said to the ogre. “It is said that you can change your shape into whatever you wish at any time. I am curious to see how this is done.”

The ogre smiled and before the cat could prepare himself changed instantly into a fierce lion. The Catfather was afraid at the closeness and apparent foul humor of the great beast, but did not betray his emotions, as your emotions are your enemy if you allow them to use you, but your friend if you can use them.

“Very impressive,” he said to the ogre-lion, sipping from his cup again. “I had no doubt that you could enlarge yourself. It would seem to me to be much more difficult to change your size to be smaller. I don’t see how you could do away with the extra mass.”

Just as quickly as he had changed into a lion, the ogre changed himself into a small field mouse. Even quicker than that was the cat’s motion as he snatched the mouse up in his jaws and ate it.

Having done the job on the ogre, the cat went to the great hall where the guests were already assembling. As soon as they understood that this was, indeed, the Catfather before them, they were easily persuaded to take their evening’s amusement elsewhere.

The Catfather reached the front of the castle just as the King’s coach arrived. His young master had done his job well. The King and his daughter were very taken with this enchanting and dashing young nobleman. That a man so young could accumulate such lands and a castle, and inspire the loyalty of such a diligent servant as this cat had greatly impressed the king. The princess was taken with the boy’s charming ways and handsome countenance. That a great feast had been so quickly prepared only served to seal their opinions of Don Catleone.

And so Don Catleone and the princess were married and lived happily ever after, their wealth and power assured for generations to come. As for the Catfather, he asked for nothing more than the proceeds from loan sharking and numbers, and the labor rackets as far as the western end of the docks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Valkyrie

I was pre-disposed not to like Valkyrie. Laid up with mono last winter, I watched more television in three weeks than I usually watch in six months, and couldn’t get through an hour without seeing an ad for it, even after it was released. Word of mouth and reviews have kicked in by then; no point spending big dough on ads when free advertising has taken over. They must be desperate to recoup whatever they can, so it must be a real lizard, right?

This is why my first impressions aren’t reliable. This is a good movie. Not great, but solid. Christopher MacQuarrie and Bryan Singer, the writer and director who teamed up for The Usual Suspects, worked together on Valkyrie as well, and it shows.

Tom Cruise is, of course, miscast. He portrays Colonel von Stauffenberg as the shortest German count in history in a one-note performance. It’s the supporting cast who carry the movie. Kenneth Branagh as the general who recruits Stauffenberg but is sent to the Russian front before plans come to fruition. Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army guarding Berlin, who refuses to come down either for or against the plotters until events have played themselves out. Terrence Stamp as General Beck, who will assume a large role in the new government if they can pull this off. Also included is a solid cast of lesser known British and German actors, all of whom are believable. David Bamber is a convincingly creepy Hitler.

I was familiar with the plot, thwarted by chance when a briefing is moved and the bomb explodes under a table sturdy enough to defect the blast away from Hitler. What I didn’t know was the extent of the conspiracy. The German Reserve Army actually arrested SS officers and was in the process of taking Berlin, thinking all the while they were under orders established in the event of a coup attempt, not realizing until later they were the coup.

Suspense movies where the end result is known ahead of time have a tough row to hoe. (I’m assuming everyone except Birthers and Death Panel believers knows this wasn’t how Hitler died.) Valkyrie is no Day of the Jackal in this regard, but it’s well worth watching.

I’m not one for “important” messages in movies, but there’s one worth noting. It has become popular recently to blame all of Germany for the Nazi excesses, and it cannot be denied many otherwise decent Germans were at least tacitly complicit. Valkyrie shows there were Germans, at all levels and with everything to lose, whose consciences demanded they do what was best for humanity at great personal risk. There were over a dozen attempts on Hitler’s life. Each failure was responded to with vicious retribution, but new recruits were always to be found. This, too, should not be forgotten.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Awrence

Random weekends over the past few years have been given over to increasing The Sole Heir's cultural awareness by showing her old movies. Old to her, at least; I was shocked--shocked!--to realize Pulp Fiction is fifteen years old, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is forty.

Last weekend's movie was David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. I hadn't seen it since the restored version was released in the late 80s, and it was shown i an old-fashioned wide-screen theater. I couldn't get that for her at home, but the fifty-inch TV with surround sound did a decent job.

I had forgotten what it's like to watch a truly great movie. It's hard to believe Hollywood would make such a film today. There would have to be a woman in there somewhere. Nothing against women in movies, but we recently saw The Caine Mutiny, and everything stops dead when they showhorn the romantic sub-plot, which goes nowhere and adds nothing.

Lawrence is an epic, unlike the biopics that dominate today. T.E. Lawrence was a larger than life figure, and the film makers were content to tell his story without adding any sisues he may have had with parental concerns, love affairs, drug or alcohol abuse, or whatever else might "humanize" him. The story of Lawrence's accomplishments and failures is more than enough, and Lean let the story play out in such a manner one can watch for three hours and forty-five minutes without looking at your watch.

It's hard to go wrong with a cast of Peter O'Toole, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, and Alec Guinness. Even Omar Sharif came through, not having to play the debonair international playboy.

Has any director ever done a better job of making the setting a character than Lean did with the desert? (lade Runner comes to mind, but on the other extreme.) The desert provides the perfect palette for the events of Lawrence's life, and Lean used it to perfection.

It's a wonderful feeling to be watching a film--doing anything, actually--and realizing, in the moment, that you're in the presence of greatness. Lawrence of Arabia was a perfect reminder.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Print Runs

Interesting post on exaggerated print runs over at Editorial Ass.

Loot

Saturday's mail brought my first (and hopefully not last) earnings as a fiction writer: a check from Todd Robinson at Thuglit for my story "Green Gables," which will be included in his next anthology. Many thanks to Big Daddy Thug and Lady Detroit for their editorial advice (too rarely found these days), and support.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July's Good Reads

Swag, Elmore Leonard - John McFetridge cites this book almost as often as Toronto is colder than Miami. Since John is mistaken about such things even less frequently than that, I finally got around to reading it, and he's right again. Classic Leonard, with two criminals who aren't as smart as they think they are. The dialog is spot on, and the story is a little more tightly plotted than is Leonard's usual policy. The ending could have come right out of Donald Westlake, though with Westlake it wouldn't have been the ending.

Slammer, Allan Guthrie - A strange book that will leave you wondering what the hell is going on in places. A young prison guard finds himself in over his head dealing with the inmates, peers, and family life. Intimidated into to muling drugs for a powerful prisoner, the stress undoes him and soon he's no more sure than the reader about what's real and what isn't. Guthrie will keep you confused, but not so baffled you give up, and provides a denouement appropriate to the climax, which not all writers, thriller or otherwise, are willing--or able--to do.

Family Secrets, Jeff Coen - Non-fiction account of one of the largest and most important organized crime trials in American history. Murders unsolved for twenty years or more became public record when Frank Calabrese, Jr. and his Uncle Nick turned on Frank Sr. and testified for the Feds. By the time the investigation and trial were over, much of the upper levels of the Chicago Outfit were behind bars, and the workings of the Chicago mob were brought out into the light as never before. Coen's writing is straightforward and journalistic and appropriate to the material. No "creative non-fiction" is needed to enhance this story. Required reading for anyone with an interest in organized crime.